Aphelion Issue 275, Volume 26
August 2022
 
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Dogwood Reveries

by H. R. Gillette



The afternoon was cold, but not just from the whispered touch of the breeze or the engulfing shadows cast by clouds that slid stealthily across the sky. Pale white light stole the place of the summer sun's usual warming gold, and throughout the cemetery any flowers were sadly devoid of color, their pallor adding to the cool atmosphere. Only the occasional dogwood tree brought a tint of pink to the lonely landscape flooded by granite stones.

Mary wondered, as she stepped out of the passenger's side of her aunt's car, if the sterile peace was reserved for the cemetery, and just beyond the iron fence she would feel the warm rays of the sun compounded as they reflected from one colorful building to another.

Smoothing her black skirt, she shut the car door and walked with the rest of the small group to where the dark coffin of her great Uncle, Arthur, marred the landscape beneath a garish purple canopy. Chairs lined one side of the carefully concealed pit to allow the immediate family members a position of respect. Mary was certain the seating arrangement also provided a shield from the throng of sympathizers stacked behind the family.

She stood what she calculated as a respectful distance away from the true mourners and listened politely as the pastor started the interment sermon. Though more appropriate than his earlier fire-and-brimstone lecture at the funeral, Mary found herself more captivated by a small cluster of dogwoods that shaded a knoll at the far end of the cemetery.

An inviting bench beneath the low boughs was unoccupied, but nearby a figure could be seen standing by the base of a large monument. She suspected the person to be a man; the curve of posture and straight silhouette were not those of a woman. He waved his hands on occasion as some people do when they speak, and a small creature, most likely a cat, sat by his feet.

Mary felt her chest constrict with emotion. Her mind ventured to wonder the depth of a bond that would bring a person to a cemetery to chatter away to someone who would never be able to hold up their end of the conversation.

She swallowed and licked her lips, turning her attention away from a situation far sadder to her than the one at hand.

####

Weeks after the funeral, a melancholy phone call from her aunt prompted Mary to return to the cemetery in order to verify the arrival of the proper headstone. The second of two remaining members of the family, she had little choice but to accept the summons. A mound of blankets and pillows beckoned to her from the enticing landscape of the couch, but Mary ignored their whispered comfort and stepped out her front doorway into a cold misty rain.

She parked her car at the entrance of the large cemetery and studied the labyrinth of single lane roads that spread out in front of her. The hint of rain was gone, leaving behind an indescribable smell of wet that would linger until the afternoon sun chased it away. Mary smiled to herself as she inhaled deeply and started off down one of the paths.

The cemetery was old, and Mary enjoyed her walk through the moss covered monuments. The part of the graveyard she wandered through required little maintenance. Moss replaced grass under the shade of the various trees, and what grass remained warranted little mowing. Her great uncle's stone was on the edge of the tree grove, just on the border of where the grass regained its kingdom.

She found nothing remarkable -- good or bad -- about the headstone; she was glad it had arrived safely. After a few moments of paid respect, she turned to leave.

Looking up as she prepared to go, she saw someone she recognized, although she had seen him only once before.

He was seated on the little bench beneath the dogwood limbs, gesturing emphatically as a cat wandered around his feet. It seemed odd to Mary that she should see him twice in as many visits and at different hours of the day.

Curious, she adjusted her direction. She planned to casually walk by and catch a word or two that might indicate some purpose to his visit. It was selfish of her, she knew, to invade someone's privacy so effortlessly, with the hope to ease her own curiosity of the situation.

She followed the paved roadway up the gentle hill. As she passed the man he fell silent, waved to her, and watched her slowly walk by. To Mary's embarrassment, the little roadway ended just beyond the man and his cat. She stood there a moment, debating on which wet, muddy route she would have to take through the grass, trying not to let her red face prove she was being nosey.

"Are you looking for something, Miss?" he asked her after a few moments.

"No, I just took a wrong turn I suppose. It's a good thing I wasn't in the car." Mary laughed nervously and turned around to face the man.

He was old, and the years had worn heavy lines around his eyes and mouth. His appearance struck her as harried, as if the weight of some horrible burden was crushing down on him. His kind smile relieved the exhausted look in his eyes.

"Too many people drive in here any more. I was glad to see someone out walking."

The cat, which had sat quietly on the bench listening, jumped down and padded its way over to Mary. It meowed at her and brushed against her leg.

"Hi, kitty." She knelt and gently stroked its back. "What a beautiful cat you are."

The silver tabby seemed to smile at her comment. Its green eyes closed and it began to purr.

"Name's Warden," the man said.

"Nice to meet you, Warden." Mary smiled at him.

He chuckled. "Not me, young lady, the cat. His name is Warden."

"Oh." Mary felt her face flush again. "I'm sorry." She patted the cat again. "My name is Mary."

"Well, Mary, it's nice to meet you. I'm Frank."

"I'm sorry to have bothered you."

"It's no bother at all. Warden can be poor company sometimes."

Mary glanced at the large monument near them.

Beatrice James, the inscription read. Any other writing was obscured by the heavy coat of moss on the stone. Like so many other markers, years of rain had smoothed away many of the stone's features. Taller than a person, the white rock stood alone on top of the knoll.

"I saw you a while ago," the man interrupted her thoughts.

It took Mary a moment but then she nodded. "Yes, I was here a few weeks ago. A distant relative passed away."

He looked at her in what seemed to be amusement. "And you're back visiting already?"

"Not really, I'm embarrassed to say. I was just making sure the headstone was correct."

"Ah, well, that's an important thing," Frank said. "I saw them set it in at the beginning of the week."

"Do you come here every day?"

He nodded. "I'm here all the time."

"Oh," was all Mary could think to say.

As if sensing her unease, Frank pointed to Warden in explanation. "I take care of the cat."

As if on cue, the feline trotted back to the old gentleman and hopped up next to him. Its green gaze turned to Mary and it sat, staring, as if it had asked her to do something and she had yet to comply.

"Does he live here?" she asked.

Frank nodded. "More or less."

"Can't you take him home?"

"He'd come right back."

"Oh." She frowned. "That's too bad."

Warden yawned at her words and started to groom himself. Next to him, Frank sighed. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a wrapped item.

"I'm sorry, Mary. I've got to eat something before I get sick." He opened the pitiful sandwich and took a bite. "The days drag on if I'm hungry."

Puzzled, Mary absently shook her head. "It's fine, really. Will you two be here tomorrow?"

He nodded.

"Do you mind if I stop by and bring Warden something special?"

Frank's face lit up with a grin. "I'm sure he'd like that just fine."

The cat made a noise akin to a chirp and sprawled out. Mary smiled. "Good, tomorrow then."

####

Mary's return visit to bring Warden some fresh fish and Frank a decent lunch evolved from a single occurrence to weekly visits over the course of a month. She enjoyed the strange pair's company, and felt Warden was as intelligent and as any person she'd ever encountered. It did not take her long to understand the attachment between Frank and the cat. She found herself thinking of them often. She felt as if she'd known them for years.

The sun was starting to descend one evening, cleverly sliding between sheets of clouds, casting hues of pink and red across the peaceful burial plots, when Mary asked Frank about the monument.

"Did you know her, Frank?" she leaned back, reclining on her arms.

The tired look returned to his eyes at the question and he shook his head. "No, I did not."

"Did Warden know her? Is that why he lives here?"

He was silent for a long minute, and Mary wondered if he was going to answer her. "No, that's not quite it either."

Between them on the grass, Warden sat up, looked at Frank, and meowed. The suddenly alert cat glanced at Mary, turned back to the old man, and meowed a second time.

"Okay, Warden, okay. Time to tell her."

"Tell me what?"

Frank shook his head. "It's not an easy thing to understand, Mary. Warden here does a job, you see. He lives here for a reason."

Mary smiled, suspicious of a joke, but she let him continue.

"Beatrice James isn't buried beneath that stone. Least not any Beatrice James that I know of. That's a marker stone, not a headstone. It has a completely different purpose."

"But why is there a name on it?"

"That's to make it blend in."

Mary was skeptical. "But if it's a marker stone, why would you want it to blend in?"

Frank stared at her, his expression comically similar to the one on Warden's furry face. He shook his head. "All right, no point in explaining it. I'll have to show you." He stood, walked over to where she sat on the ground, and picked up the silver tabby next to her. "You sit there. I'll take Warden. Try not to scream."

She opened her mouth to speak as he walked down the hill, but Frank shook his head, a finger over his lips. Mary felt like the butt of some practical joke as she sat alone, staring at the dogwoods.

Frank stopped walking halfway between the bench and Mary's uncle's grave. He held on to Warden despite the cat's attempts to wiggle from his grasp.

Still sitting on the grass, Mary shivered as a shadow slithered over the immediate area. She went to push herself up off the ground but froze halfway between sitting and standing. The monument next to her groaned. She stared at it, unable to tear her eyes away as the mixture of grass, moss, and leaves surrounding its base began to pulse. She leaned closer, mouth gaping as the ground fell away to -- she didn't know. It vanished and an empty darkness yawned in its place. A voice whispered from within the unfathomable depths. Mary leaned closer.

A low growl from next to her brought Mary out of her stupor. Warden stepped between her and the chasm, staring into the blackness. A cruel wind reached out from the pit, hammering at the cat as he stood his ground. Moments later the wind calmed, and Mary found herself staring, shocked, at the once again peaceful and serene white tomb marked Beatrice James.

"Do you understand now?" Frank asked from behind her. "It's a marker stone. Like a buoy marking a submerged hazard, but on dry land."

Mary wanted to drag her gaze from the stone but found herself unable. She barely acknowledged Warden winding back and forth between her feet. “What do you mean a hazard?” she whispered.

“World’s full of ‘em, far as I can tell.” The bench creaked with Frank’s weight. “I saw one, years ago, when I was a young man in the service. Platoon was wandering through a Korean jungle when our guide stopped short of a strange monument. Made out of the same white stone as this one.”

Mary gradually turned her back to Beatrice James, listening to Frank's memory.

“Anyway, they told us we had to go around a different way. That the marker had lost its guardian, and only death would meet anyone who got too close. The captain humored our guide; didn’t want to waste any time, you know? But my buddy Charles was behind me. I saw him lean over the stone...and then he was gone.”

A chill ran across Mary’s spine. “Do you mean he fell in? Into a pit like the one I saw?”

“I never saw a pit, Mary. Didn’t see a pit when you were up here, either. All I know was that Charles was gone; gun, backpack, and all. You’d best go home now.” Frank leaned back with Warden on his lap. “We’ll talk more about it tomorrow.”

Mary nodded absently, heading down the hill toward her car. She shuddered, thinking about what Frank had said. A submerged hazard? Submerged hazards don't whisper invitations...

####

Mary stayed away from the cemetery for a few weeks after her experience. She tried to deny the series of events entranced into her psyche, but to no avail. After days of blanketed solitude, when she had finally come to the conclusion that she had actually seen what she had seen, she knew she had to return.

The fickle hand of autumn clutched the cemetery with chilly fingers as she pulled in and parked her car. Taking a shorter route off the paved path, she arrived at the crest of the little knoll with little trouble.

A small form lay curled on the bench beneath the green leaved trees. At the sound of her approach, the cat looked up.

"Warden?" Mary held out her hand, reluctant to venture closer.

The tabby let out a soft mewl and remained where he was. Frank was no where to be seen.

Concern for the cat inevitably brought Mary over to the bench. She sat next to Warden, patting him gently. He looked scruffy, like he hadn't eaten in days. She reached in her pocket and pulled out his treat. Instantly he was alert, climbing all over her to get to the can of tuna.

"Where's Frank, Warden?" she asked him. He looked up at her, his green eyes belaying a sadness she found disconcerting. Thinking to out wait the old man, Mary allowed Warden to curl up on her lap as she rested on the bench.

It wasn't until night had almost fallen that she knew Frank was not going to return.

Mary had never asked Frank what happened at the end of the day. She assumed he went home, took care of his affairs, and then came back in the morning. She regretted running off without a word that day so many weeks ago. The absence of closure gnawed at her heart and she hoped she would see him again in the morning.

Leaving the can for Warden, she picked her way back to the car and drove home.

First thing in the morning, Mary went to the cemetery. She carried an assortment of food for Warden as well as a lunch for Frank. Her spirits high, she jogged up the path, ready to make amends for her behavior.

But just as before, Warden was alone on the bench.

Mary glanced warily at the monument as she walked past it. She could not undo the gift of knowledge bestowed on her. She would have to adjust.

Warden greeted her as she approached. Together, they sat on the bench, and Mary lay out his assortment of menu items. The cat seemed cheered to have her around, and even though Frank was absent the entire day, Mary could not bring herself to leave Warden until nightfall.

####

Mary searched for Frank after days of enduring his absence. Her search revealed nothing, and none of the neighbors or the caretaker could recall a man who visited the cemetery daily.

"You know," Mary said, staring up as the first snow flakes danced to the ground, "we should build you a little house. We could build it right in the thick of the dogwoods and no one would be the wiser."

Warden meowed softly and curled up next to her warmth.

She kissed him on the head. "Whatever it is that you do, Warden, I'll make sure you're taken care of. We can't let anyone take you away from here. I don't want to think about what would happen."

As she talked to Warden seated on the bench beneath the dogwoods, Mary waved her hands, gesturing as some people do when they carry on a conversation.

TO BE CONTINUED...


© 2011 H. R. Gillette

Bio: Hope Gillette is an award winning short story author and novelist. Her YA novel, Journey Through Travelers' Tower will be published in May, 2012. Several of Hope's stories have appeared in Aphelion, most recently The Legacy, November 2011. For more by and about Ms. Gillette, visit her website at Hope Gillette: Official Author Site.

E-mail: H. R. Gillette

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